MOSCOW - The Kremlin's ruling United Russia party maintained its majority with victories in nationwide local elections that wrapped up Sunday -- even as several candidates affiliated with stricken opposition leader Alexey Navalny scored important victories in closely watched races in Siberia.
Election authorities extended voting to 3 days due to concerns over the coronavirus — a move that independent observers say opened the door to manipulation of the results through early voting.
A similar seven-day voting stretch was introduced during a controversial referendum vote on Russia’s constitution over the summer.
Golos, an independent vote monitoring organization, issued a scathing assessment of the most recent elections as a “legal free for all” — pointing to pressure against election observers and authorities general lack of interest in allowing public oversight of the vote.
“These elections showed that where there were social controls, the results according to turnout and results reflected reality,” said the organization’s co-chairman Grigory Melkonyants in an interview with Echo of Moscow radio.
“And where there wasn’t — the results were abnormal voter turnout and huge victories for government-backed candidates,” added Melkonyants.
A total of six Kremlin-backed governors scored victories with more than 80% of the vote — improbably surpassing even President Vladimir Putin’s margins during his reelection campaign in 2018.
Despite a recent ratings dip, Putin and his image handlers have long positioned the Russian leader as the sole figure allowed to shine on the national stage.
Smart Vote after poisoning
The vote took place amid polls showing growing public anger over falling wages and a stagnant economy gutted by falling world oil prices and fallout from the spread of the coronavirus.
In the Far East, the Kremlin has faced an outright revolt over its role in the arrest and dismissal of a popular local governor in the Khabarovsk region along the Chinese border. Thousands took part in anti-government demonstrations over the summer.
The races were also held in the wake of the poisoning of opposition leader Alexei Navalny — an event that helped focus international attention on the elections.
Until he suddenly fell ill aboard an airplane in Siberia last month, Navalny had been rallying the public to participate in a “smart vote” campaign designed to defeat candidates from the ruling United Russia party.
Navalny is currently recovering in a Berlin hospital from what German doctors say was exposure to a Soviet-produced military nerve agent in an attempt on his life.
On Monday, Germany issued a statement saying that Swedish and French toxicologists had confirmed their findings into the poison attack.
Later, German doctors had successfully disconnected him from a ventilator and he was breathing on his own.
Meanwhile, Navalny loyalists saw other reasons to celebrate.
The Smart Vote approach also cut deep into United Russia’s margins in cities such as Novosibirsk and Tomsk — the suspected site of the poisoning attack.
“I think you all understand how principle it was to win after all that happened in Tomsk,” wrote Ksenia Fadeeva, the head of the local chapter of Navalny’s Anti-Corruption Foundation, who was elected to a seat on the local city Duma no longer dominated United Russia.
“Thank you again to all for your support,” added Fadeeva.
In Tambov, the strategy was on full display. United Russia’s one-time dominance in the local parliament had been reduced to just one of 18 seats.
“It fully destroys all the myths” that liberal opposition candidates garner just 2% support outside of the capital, wrote Navalny’s chief strategist Leonid Volkov, in a post to Facebook.
But it was clear bigger political stakes lay ahead.
The election of governors, local parliaments, city councils, and municipal bodies was widely viewed as a dry run for next fall’s national parliamentary elections.
“If we do everything smartly,” wrote liberal politician Ilya Yashin in a post online, “then next year United Russia will lose its majority in the federal parliament.”